Brain function can start declining 'as early as age 45'

Memory loss (generic image) Individuals were tested for memory, vocabulary and aural and visual comprehension skills

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The brain's ability to function can start to deteriorate as early as 45, suggests a study in the British Medical Journal.

University College London researchers found a 3.6% decline in mental reasoning in women and men aged 45-49.

They assessed the memory, vocabulary and comprehension skills of 7,000 men and women aged 45 to 70 over 10 years.

The Alzheimer's Society said research was needed into how changes in the brain could help dementia diagnoses.

Previous research had suggested that cognitive decline does not begin much before the age of 60.

But the results of this study show that it could in fact begin in middle age.

This is important, the researchers say, because dementia treatments are more likely to work at the time when individuals start to experience mental impairment.

The UCL researchers tested the cognitive functions of 5,198 men and 2,192 women aged 45 to 70, who were all UK civil servants, from 1997 to 2007.

Individuals were tested for memory, vocabulary and aural and visual comprehension skills.

Differences in education level were taken into account.

Mid-life crisis

The results of the tests show that cognitive scores declined in all categories except vocabulary - and there was a faster decline in older people.

The study found a 9.6% decline in mental reasoning in men aged 65-70 and a 7.4% decline for women of the same age.

For men and women aged 45-49, there was a 3.6% decline.

Professor Archana Singh-Manoux from the Centre for Research in Epidemiology and Population Health in France, who led the research team at University College London, said the evidence from the study showed that dementia involved cognitive decline over two to three decades.

Dr Anne Corbett, Alzheimer's Society: 'There are things people can do to reduce their chances of getting dementia later down the line'

"We now need to look at who experiences cognitive decline more than the average and how we stop the decline. Some level of prevention is definitely possible.

"Rates of dementia are going to soar and health behaviours like smoking and physical activity are linked to levels of cognitive function.

"It's important to identify the risk factors early. If the disease has started in an individual's 50s but we only start looking at risk in their 60s, then how do you start separating cause and effect?"

Lifestyle choices

Start Quote

If the disease has started in an individual's 50s but we only start looking at risk in their 60s, then how do you start separating cause and effect?”

End Quote Professor Archana Singh-Manoux UCL

Dr Anne Corbett, research manager at the Alzheimer's Society, said the study added to the debate on when cognitive decline began, but it left some questions unanswered.

"The study does not tell us whether any of these people went on to develop dementia, nor how feasible it would be for GPs to detect these early changes.

"More research is now needed to help us fully understand how measurable changes in the brain can help us improve diagnosis of dementia."

Dr Simon Ridley, head of research at Alzheimer's Research UK, said he wanted to see similar studies carried out in a wider population sample.

He added: "Previous research suggests that our health in mid-life affects our risk of dementia as we age, and these findings give us all an extra reason to stick to our New Year's resolutions.

"Although we don't yet have a sure-fire way to prevent dementia, we do know that simple lifestyle changes - such as eating a healthy diet, not smoking, and keeping blood pressure and cholesterol in check - can all reduce the risk of dementia."

Professor Lindsey Davies, president of the Faculty of Public Health, said that people should not wait until their bodies and minds broke down before taking action.

"We need only look at the problems that childhood obesity rates will cause if they are not addressed to see how important it is that we take 'cradle to grave' approach to public health."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 119.

    I feel just as clever now as I did when I was twenty. In much the same way as, when I actually was twenty, I felt just as capable of driving drunk as when I was sober. That's the good thing about mental impairment; it's usually someone else's problem.

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    Well, nothing new here, except the exceptional size of the population study, using individuals who are, or have been, civil servants. I worked at Prof. Pat Rabbit's research unit in the 1990s, and with a volunteer population sample in the Greater Manchester area, his team had established this relationship then. Since extended education correlates with better cognition more H.E. was good, but goes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    Growing old gracefully is not such a bad thing, Memory as I remember it is emotional and effected by our well being as people, if you are the more anxious so your memory will fail you the more. If so, take more time with your life. remember that when you get older and make decisions you have much mor experience than a younger person to contemplate before deciding, so take your time and relax.

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    This says a lot for the people at the top of major companies and the ones running the country, no wonder we are in such a state, they should be replaced by people under 40 then!!!! God help us

  • rate this

    Comment number 115.

    In 2010 the average age of an MP was 50 - maybe their selection processes should include a cognitive test.
    But seriously if this article is right then:
    a) is it wise to raise the retirement age to 67?
    b) if employers latch onto this it will make it much harder for the older unemployed to find work (except if they're a doddering MP!)

  • rate this

    Comment number 114.

    Many people confuse the effects of disuse atrophy with senescence - often prematurely using their age as an excuse. Exercising the mind and body will, in many cases, delay some of the 'symptoms' of aging. That said, human beings were only built to live 40-50 years and so some decline is inevitable, but people can do a lot, health permitting, to keep their minds and bodies strong and active.

  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    Don't forget to add in the TEENAGER factor, so I'm guessing circa 40 for me!

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    I welcome the news now as I'm 35. Therefore by the time I'm 45 I'll have forgotten all about this and can live in blissful ignorance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    I'm 64 and still working , no plans to stop. My husband is 73, still working at his pc every day and although both of us have the odd glitch when we can't remember the name of an actress in a movie or similar, I have noticed no slowing down of brain function. In fact at some things, I'm quicker than I used to be. The comment that maybe our brains are fuller than youngsters is interesting.

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    What do we want?

    A decent memory!

    When do we want it?

    Want what?

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    Many years ago, I forget when, (cue to laugh!), I read that the I.Q. peaks at some point in the 20s then slowly deteriorates.

    Elsewhere I have often come across evidence of deterioration in brain function affected by age - so why is this new news?

    One has to ask if the researchers didn't bother with earlier research as they are young - or if so old they've forgotten it!

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.


    "...This is a vital area of research. There is no point in...steering us away from the tobacco and fat... just so that the extra years gained can be spent in a fog of dementia...."


    Of course there is. How else is the wage-slave system to deprive us of anything to leave to the next generation, so that they remain in precarity? Nursing care's big business too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    This article made me laugh so much I wet my pants, but I've forgotten why. And I'm only 56 (or is it 57?). And I'm not even a Civil Servant (at least I don't think I am...)

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    I feel a good deal brighter and more alert now, having entered my seventh decade, than I did as a befuddled teenager. That's probably due to a healthier lifestyle. By the way, the reason that lady is brandishing those scrabble letters is because you have dealt her one letter short!

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    Not to week there'll be a study announcing that alcohol consumption can stop the brain deteriorating.

    At least that's what I'm hoping for ;-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    Why is this statement from the ministry of the bleeding obvious being given such prominence? Could it be that the BBC doesn't want a discussion of a particular story that says a lot about the real racism in UK society today? Anyway, it's time for me walk.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    as goodbyradio1said I see it in myself but it could also be I run my own business and recently theres been more workload and I was working from 8 to 10 most days. as the workload got more i forgot more but as a percentage it was most probably the same. I was making more mistakes but relativly the same. I just wonder wheather late 40 is a time when mores going on therfore we forget more.

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    I was 45 on Tuesday...this has officially ruined my week...

  • Comment number 101.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    I turned 45 in October and have just completed my studies to be Chartered Management Accountant. I am starting a degree in February, Oh, and I am changing from a holding midfielder to a goalkeeper.

    But then, I'm not a civil servant, perhaps that says more about the results of the study........


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